The Potlatch: a War of Property

A display of goods to be given away at a potlatch at Yalis (Alert Bay, British Columbia), ca. 1900.

Post #6 of the Art as Gift project’s reading of Jacques Derrida’s Given Time

The Potlatch
A gift-giving feast practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the United States, among whom it is traditionally the primary economic system. (Wikipedia)

Marcel Mauss’s description of the potlatch:
“madly extravagant …Everything is based upon the principles of antagonism and of rivalry. The political status of individuals in the brotherhoods and clans… are gained in a “war of property,” just as they are in a real war…Yet everything is conceived of as if it were a “struggle of wealth.”…In a certain number of cases, it is not even a question of giving and returning, but of destroying, so as not to want to even to appear to desire repayment. Whole boxes of olachen (candlefish) oil or whale oil are burnt, as are houses and thousands of blankets. The most valuable copper objects are broken and thrown into the water, in order to crush and to “flatten” one’s rival. In this way one not only promotes oneself, but also one’s family, up the social scale.” (The Gift, 37)

Derek Hampson

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